What I did on my summer vacation (or, “may I have your passport, please?”)

Erna_1 On my summer vacation, I went looking for Erna Schonwald. 

I’ve wanted to collect for some time now.  My father collected Inuit carvings.  Will Straw, a friend in Montreal, turned eBay into a collecting machine, making one brilliant acquistion after another.  The two of them made it look like fun. 

I especially liked the idea  of collecting, the solitary pleasure, the little universe you build purchase by purchase, the way things you never knew or cared about suddenly assume "must have" status.  But what to collect?  Rugs, watches, wine, movie posters, motel coasters, first edition noir?  Nothing appealed to me. 

Then I came across Erna’s passport on eBay.  This, I thought, this I would like to have.  It came in the mail, paper in paper.  The passports of 1920s Austria were delicate things, green ink on beige paper, filled now with forms, stamps, signatures, and of course Erna’s photograph, from which she looks out at us steadily, apparently thinking something funny and kind.

My German isn’t very good.  So the passport didn’t give away very much.  Erna was born in late October in 1894.  The passport was issued in 1922.  In between, what?  It looks as if Erna gives her profession as a private beautician, but I could be wrong.

Lots of questions.  Why did she leave?  Where did she go?  How did she fund her trip?  What happened next?

My sister said, "look at the Ellis Island website," and this says Erna arrived in the US in 1923.  She was sponsored by her brother Philippe who arrived the year before.  Philippe is described as "Dr." Schonwald and he had been sponsored by his cousin, A.F. Low in Seattle.  Ah, so that’s where the money came from. 

But more questions.  Why was a doctor leaving his homeland in 1922…at 47 no less?  The early twenties seems a little early to be escaping anti-semitism, but then my German history isn’t much better than my German. 

Then my sister discovered a reference to a Dr. Schonwald, President of the East Point Oysters Company of Stanwood Washington.  What are the chances, she asked me, that there were two Dr. Schonwald’s in the area in the period?  So, what, Dr. Schonwald was a biologist?
And then I discovered that someone has digitized the Seattle phone book for 1923.  (I mean, is the Internet not the greatest thing in the history of the universe?)  This calls "Philipp" a physician.  And it says that his office was at 227 Cobb building.  Using these key words in Google, we learn that the Cobb was built in 1910 with the purpose of offering "200 of Seattle’s best doctors and finest dentists the choicest office possible."   Ok, so he’s a not just a doctor but a man of substance.  (So what about the oyster thing again?)

If we consult the 1930 census, we discover that Philippe has a wife, Peggie, and two daughters, Lurlie, 15, and Rose, 12 and a Norwegian servant called Matilda.  These means, among other things, that when Philippe came to America, he was travelling with two children under the age of 10.

The census also gives us a glimpse of Erna (mistransliterated as "Ema") as a boarder.  Oh, my heart sank a little.  Erna would now have been 35.  The census says that she was a bookkeeper.  Finally, it gives her birthplace as "Vatican City State."  My heart rose.   There is no way that this is a misprint.  There’s no way the census taker misunderstood.  This is either an extravagant act of the imagination or the truth.   

The 1930 census says that Erna was boarding with Ariston Wchwertner, but it is clear that this too is a misprint.  Erna was boarding with a "Schwertner," with whom she shared German as a first language.  Also, it turns out that Schwertner was working as a nurse in a doctor’s office, and now of course we wonder whether Erna’s might have been a bookkeeper in same.

While I was searching for Schwerter, a familiar name popped up: Philipp Schonwald.  This is the man who sponsored her journey from Guafenstein, Tchecho Slowakei, via Surabaya, Indonesia to San Francisco and then Seattle. 

This means that Erna is merely listed as a boarder.  She is in fact living with a woman who is almost certainly a relative.  And chances are now good that she works with this woman as well, which suggests that she is working for her brother.  Ah, Erna safe in the bossom of her family.

After that, the trail goes cold.  I can’t find any more about her.   Thoughts, speculations, more information, any of this would be most appreciated.  Does anyone have an idea why Dr. Schonwald left in 1922 or Erna left in 1923?  What little I know tells me that the Jewish community had been leaving since the 1860s.  But what would have persuaded a physican to move his family and two small children across first an ocean and then a continent?   But most of all, was Erna born in the Vatican City?  Or was this a brilliant lie? 

I ran out of vacation.  It’s up to you. 

10 thoughts on “What I did on my summer vacation (or, “may I have your passport, please?”)

  1. Carol Gee

    Grant, what a great post! I have the experience of collecting also, but this find was a woman’s personal scrapbook, purchased at an antique store. I find it so poignant that a person’s personal object finds its way to some unknown benefactor years later. And we are benefactors, you know. We honor those women from long ago with our curiosity, by wanting to know their stories. For me I always hoped my “subject” had a good life, had some of her dreams come true, and lived to a ripe old age. This, also is a hint of what immortality is about, in a way. I think I would have liked “sturdy Erna.”

  2. Grant

    Carol, thanks, it’s weird, isn’t it, to know so much, so glimpse a lot more, and finally to know hardly anything about the woman herself. Maybe one day. Thanks, Grant

  3. andrew (afroml)

    “Does anyone have an idea why Dr. Schonwald left in 1922 or Erna left in 1923?”

    Germany after the First World War went through a sort of national nervous breakdown so there could have been all sorts of pressures that would have encouraged people to get out. There were fears of a Bolshevik revolution, there were extremist anti-semitic groups attacking Jewish families (precursers of the Nazis although the Nazi party itself was not founded until 1923) but above all in 1922 and 1923 there was hyper-inflation with an exchange rate of a trillion German marks to one dollar. The hyper-inflation destroyed the middle classes as anyone who had savings saw their money just evaporate.

    This is a fascinating post.

  4. Peter

    Great post, Grant! We missed you, and this post shows why!

    On the topic of collecting: Having worked a lot with Americans, I came to the conclusion that collecting is a key feature of middle-class American culture. (I’ve not worked with Canadians, so I don’t know if the feature extends North.) As soon as one sits down to a social meal with American business colleagues, the stories will come out — about that they collect, what their parents, siblings, neighbours and children collect, and how far they’ve got, which things they snapped up, which they missed. The collections are usually of physical artefacts (civil war guns, beer cans, orchids, vintage car models, etc), but not always. I’ve also met people who collect experiences — eg, jazz festivals, art gallery visits (but only those galleries showing the work of a specific artist), WW I battle sites, etc.

    Several aspects are interesting about this to me: First, collecting seems to be a means by which middle-class Americans define themselves, and establish their own identity. I think this explains why many people do not collect the same things as their parents. Second, collecting enables people to establish expertise and authority in some domain. When most people are in jobs which are generalist rather than specialist (eg, those in middle management), perhaps it is important for one’s self-esteem to acquire some very specific expertise in something. Third, it is only Americans who do this: I know very few middle-class Australians or Britons or Germans (the western cultures I know best) who seriously collect stuff, and the ones who do are considered somewhat eccentric or obsessive by the rest. Why is this a feature of middle-class American life, but not elsewhere?

  5. Grant

    Andrew, brilliant, illuminating, thanks! Grant

    Peter, Wow, and this is why I’ve missed posting, I had no idea that this was a national pasttime but now that I think of it, there is collecting everywhere here in Connecticut and NYC, and when people talk about it, they do so with this charming balance of passionate intensity and a tone of “look at me, I must be nuts” amused disavowal. Very interesting. Thanks! Grant

  6. Peter

    Thinking more about why Americans may be collectors more often than are other folks, I wonder if collecting is a way to ground oneself in something when one’s geographical co-ordinates are not so grounded. In other words, in a culture where people move home several times in their life, a person may have only faint identification with the geographic place he or she happens to be living in currently.

    Europeans certainly move less often over their lifetime than do (middle class) Americans, and Australians are probably somewhere in between the two. If your family has lived in the one place for several generations and you yourself are still there, you may have less need to find the fixed-point and the community which collecting can provide you.

    I grew up in a region of rural Australia where my family had lived for close on a century, and they were deeply embedded in the local social fabric. My childhood, with its many stories of local relatives and ancestors and their exploits, was like a Faulkner novel. Perhaps a person has less psychological need to be a collector in this environment.

  7. Carol Gee

    Peter, I enjoyed your insight. My background is that I come from a relatively “young” western state, and now live in a relatively “young” southwestern state. When our family of origin finally settled there, after many moves west (travelling light), my mother could begin to accumulate “stuff.” Now, at age 90+, she has divested most all her stuff to her progeny, my siblings and I. So her collections have passed on to us. Living in the same ancestral “digs” would mean you just leave the “stuff” at the old home place, huh?

  8. Peter

    The UK Guardian today has an interview with a married couple who have in 23 years amassed a collection of 5000 teapots:


    They’ve turned their collection into a museum, and the husband says:

    “People think we’re strange, because of what we’ve collected and our lifestyle. Our sons all thought we were weird, but now they see the collection brings a lot of joy to a lot of people.”

  9. Peter

    Grant — If you’ll forgive some more amateur psychologizing, I thought of another possible motivation for collecting, which may explain why it is currently more common among Americans than among other middle-class westerners: Perhaps collecting is a natural reaction to plenitude. Faced with absolutely enormous and overwhelming amounts of stuff in our world — artefacts, recordings, books, information, knowledge, history, et al — collecting can provide us with a means to make sense of this Eden of plenty. So, for example, instead of trying to listen to ALL recorded jazz, we instead focus on just a handful of it (eg, Miles Davis recordings, or Blue Note albums, or recordings by jazz pianists who played with Scott LaFaro). Collecting becomes the means by which our limited-bandwidth minds can cope with plenitude — ie, it provides us with a theme or a pathway through the rich tropical jungle of life.

  10. Dorte Pallisgaard

    Can You please email me the web-adress of the Seattle phone book of 1923. I have seen the site before (I have relatives in this book) But I can’t seem to find the link now.
    Dorte Pallisgaard

Comments are closed.